Frank Deford, NPR’s longest running sports commenter, retired two days ago, and hearing his final sign off got me a little misty.
Not because I’m a huge Frank Deford fan. I’ve probably heard less than ten of his commentaries, though he made 1,656 of them over his thirty seven year career. But more because I really loved the way he framed his coverage of sports: as shining a light on one branch of culture.
I really like that.
Sports, and the sporting world, may not always define who we are as a people, but it’s fertile ground for drawing analogies, and mapping public opinion and sharing eternal moments.
Now, some would say that sports is the general absence of culture, and specifically that the junction of athletics and commerce it’s a cultural wasteland. In Amy Schumer’s last movie, Trainwreck, her character summed up what many people feel:
“I’m sorry, I just… I don’t know why we treat these athletes like heroes just because they can skate fast or kick a ball in a net. I just think it’s weird. No offense. I just think that sports are stupid, and anyone who likes them is just, like, a lesser person. And has a small intellect.”
Yep. I totally get that. I mean, I disagree completely, but I certainly understand the sentiment. I’ve felt that way many times- as I’m sure Frank Deford did during his thirty seven years on the beat. Sometimes, in the face of world events or human suffering, sports can feel…childish. And to some, entirely unnecessary. In his final recording he chuckled about how many people wondered openly why an organization as intelligent as NPR gave a hoot about sports anyway. He spent a lot of time in a thinker’s market, seen as kind of a mild annoyance. Many of us who life a life of the mind don’t have a lot of time to dish about the life of the body. Don’t talk to me about sports in a world of arts and sciences.
I get it.
Dustin brought me on to write about football. That was my original mandate. And I chuckle when I remember many posts in the beginning saying “uh…wait…why are we doing this again?”
I understand that reaction. For a while Pajiba covered professional wrestling and despite the quality of the writing, I absolutely couldn’t bring myself to care.
But as the world around us has sort of backslid into a mess, sports are a place where a kernel of wonder still exists. I wrote almost nothing about the NFL last season because its an offensive organization led by a true blackguard, but the Super Bowl was one of the most amazing sporting events I’ve ever seen. Or horrific, depending on your perspective.
The Olympics, which have been co-opted into a disgusting international marketing extravaganza, still routinely feature feats of athletic prowess that boggle the mind. To watch someone work their entire life for one moment and then score the goal or stick the landing or break the world record? It can feel magical. And as corrupt and vile as the IOC has been over the years, without the celebration, we would have never seen the ultimate example of a country showing its hand:
As corrupt and vile as Fifa has been over the years, we still have amazing stories and nailbiting world cups.
In my lifetime, I can’t even count how many amazing tennis matches I’ve watched. I remember a US Open match between Sampras and Agassi that seemed to go on forever with each player making virtually no mistakes. We’ve witnessed the rise of awe-inspiring players, from the Martinas and Steffis through to Venus and Serena Williams herself, who is, to my eye, the greatest athlete in American history. And she’s still playing, still racking up wins right here under our spoiled-as-shit noses.
And because of our understanding of nuance in tennis, 7 Days in Hell is majestic. It is the absolute pinnacle of sports comedy.
Likewise, Brockmire, a magnificent show with masterful writing as sculpted and kneaded and pored over as a muscle on an athlete’s body. It’s phenomenal, and made me care about baseball again. A little.
Because yes, we’ve been burnt. I used to be amazed watching Lance at the head of the peloton, only to find out that he lied to us and shamed our country. I adored that Sammy Sosa and Mark MaGwire hug when it happened, and now it makes my saliva acidic. I think back on the famous Olympic cold war battles between America and the U.S.S.R. for the hearts and minds of the free world and feel scorn toward an institutional Russian doping program that is decades old.
Sports woo us and sports push us away. For every thrill-of-victory Miracle on Ice story there’s a darker, but no less important Foxcatcher story.
And I haven’t even scratched the surface because sports informs our feelings about race and gender and cultural identity. What does the name Muhammed Ali mean to the world? Should female soccer players be paid as much as men? Should NCAA athletes, who generate billions of dollars per year for their colleges and universities, get a share of the pie? Any share?
Through sports we learn about ourselves. How did you feel when LeBron had an ESPN special just to announce that he was ‘taking his talents’ to Miami? What does the name Donald Sterling mean to you? Should NBA players be able to collude to make their own power-franchises?
I’ve gone this long without even mentioning the NHL which, without a doubt, is the sport that makes me yell the loudest and jump around my house like an insane person. I’ve been a Bruins fan since I was a tot, but nothing in my hockey life ever made me as happy as watching Ray Bourque raise the Stanley Cup as a member of the Colorado Avalanche. Hockey, if you know what you’re watching, is beautiful.
But there’s just so much more. What does the rise and fall of Tiger Woods say about us as a culture? How many O.J. Simpson cautionary tales are there? How can we justify the cognitive dissonance of watching and cheering for a game where we know the players are suffering with Chronic traumatic encephalopathy brought on by the very playing of said sport? How do we feel about players healing previously unhealable injuries using stem cells?
Pele. The Great One. MJ. Lebron. Serena. Jeter. Ali. Joe Montana. Renaldo. Jim Thorpe. Jim Brown. Super Mario. Maradona. Federer. Usain Bolt. I could tell you amazing, anecdotal stories about every one of them. Do you know these names? How do they make you feel?
Because the feelings in sports are where the power is.
I get fired up watching the Six Nations Tournament in Rugby. I get fired up watching Manu Samoa. I get fired up watching NCAA wrestling and American Ninja Challenge. And it isn’t even limited to the human body. I was full of emotion watching Barbaro surge from the pack to win the 2006 Kentucky Derby by seven lengths in 2006. You could feel it coming even before you’d see it coming and it’s that magic, that truth that makes sports great. Especially in a cynical world where so many things feel jaded and broken.
Speaking of which, tomorrow, presumably in the rain, the 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby will see whose mudder genes take the day. The field is set. Who’s your huckleberry?
1 — Lookin at Lee — 26-1
2 — Thunder Snow — 18-1
3 — Fast and Accurate — 34-1
4 — Untrapped —80-1
5 — Always Dreaming — 4-1
6 — State of Honor — 65-1
7 — Girvin — 21-1
8 — Hence — 15-1
9 — Irap — 41-1
10 — Gunnevera — 9-1
11 — Battle of Middway — 44-1
12 — Sonneteer — 36-1
13 — J Boys Echo — 44-1
14 — Classic Empire — 6-1
15 — McCracken — 5-1
16 — Tapwrit — 38-1
17 — Irish War Cry — 6-1
18 — Gormley — 26-1
19 — Practical Joke — 31-1
20 — Patch — 15-1
My heart says Irish War Cry but my head says McCracken. Either way, you can be absolutely certain that Lady C and I will be celebrating the race with some of these kick ass blackberry lime mint juleps.
We’ve covered a number of sports in this piece, but my knowledge of so many others is sadly lacking. In surfing there was the time before Kelly Slater and the time after he showed up to dominate. You have the Tony Hawks of the world and the Bode Millers and the Jean-Claude Killy’s and the Lindsey Vonns and the Kjetil Andre Aamodts. You have amazing athletes in the X-games and in lesser known Olympic sports. You have mixed martial arts. You have divers and swimmers and water polo players and wrestlers and gymnasts.
And you have figure skaters.
I’ve been a fan of figure skating as long as I can remember. As a lifelong hockey player, I know (roughly) how difficult it is to pull off even the most rudimentary figure skating skills. But it’s a sport that combines power and artistry, it’s tough to beat. And that brings us to hotness. Just inferno level hotness. Here, representing France, are two gorgeous people doing gorgeous things. Are they the best skaters in the world? Right now, no. In fact if they skate out of their minds in the next olympics, they’re likely still playing for bronze. If you watch enough figure skating, you’ll recognize that this pair is not quite as polished as some of their competitors, but they skate with heart, they’re improving quickly and they have a head of steam behind them.
And the outfits they picked and the casual coolness they exude? It just feels like an upgrade. Not since Serena herself has anyone annihilated a catsuit like this. It just feels like some of the frilliness and silliness of the ladies figure skating apparel got put on notice. And the music choice? A Sound of Silence cover by Disturbed? It’s so easy to get behind. This team skates for a new generation. She’s gorgeous. He’s adorbs. They almost make me feel young again.
So, while I certainly understand people who aren’t into sports, I’ll never shake them. I’ll never stop being impressed by what people can do with this simple but amazing tool of the human body, be they Bolshoi Ballet dancers or Cirque Du Soleil performers or Offensive Linemen. Frank Deford spent thirty seven years bringing sport to smart people. I’d consider myself lucky to manage a quarter of that. Despite all the nonsense that can happen at the intersection of money and competition, when you witness that beauty with your own eyes? It’s nothing short of magic.
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